Workshop 4: Gail Davies, ‘Moving mice: Managing emergence in experimental systems‘

Gail Davies (Department of Geography, UCL) opened her presentation stating that her paper is about deviants, mutants, virgins and rogues. Davies emphasised, however, that these are not her terms, but are used by her respondents to talk about the animals in their care. She explained that these are people managing the range of genetically altered mice used in contemporary biomedical research. Further, Davies argued that the terms take us back to the monstrous bodily overspills of early taxonomy. However, she pointed out that the context here is twenty-first century biology. Therefore, Davies proposed that these terms emerge as animal caretakers and scientists seek to understand the challenge that spontaneous mutations in laboratory mice present to their use as experimental objects.  Unexpected happenings in the mouse house either herald a useful new strain of research animal, or they are culled. Gail Davies stated that she is interested in where and when these different outcomes occur – the difference difference makes as it were.  Being a geographer, she read this through the spatiality of these experimental forms, using site as the basis from which to explore whether these moments of biological emergence are able to articulate new potential, or remain excessive to the demands of control in experimental systems.   

Gail Davies explained that this paper is part of larger project, funded by an ESRC fellowship entitled Biogeography and Transgenic Life.  It is tracing genetically-altered mice to say something about the changing geographies of science, and using the concept of biogeography to say something more about the ‘bio’ in these processes. Davies claimed that by focusing on strains of laboratory mice the questions opened up are distinctive – about the changing nature of biological practices, their intersection with the bioeconomy and bioethics, and the shaping of biological emergence. 

Davies stated that one reason for studying laboratory mice is their ubiquity, as models of human bodies and disease, especially in post genomic research (in the UK last year, 3.2 million laboratory procedures on animals were recorded; 83% of these were on mice). However, she argued that this ubiquity is not to suggest the biogeographies of laboratory mice are smooth.  Davies claimed that tracing their geography reveals institutional centres, as well as exclusions and the patterns shaping this distribution involve the deployment of biological emergence as well as its constraint. She proposed that there is a key tension between spaces of standardization and spaces of experimentation, which she focused on in this talk.

In particular, Gail Davies suggested a tension between accounts tracing the standardization of laboratory mice in biomedical research, and stories offering a more lively and disruptive vision of animals in experimental systems. Davies proposed that stories of standardization have dominated accounts of the development of research animals so far. Here, she brought arguments about standardization into conversation with those by Rheinberger on technical and epistemic objects. Davies grounded these through two stories of biological exuberance when animal difference is experienced and made sense of – the stories of mutant mice and virgin births. 

Concomitantly, Davies argued that in the first context (mutant mice story), the contingencies of biological vitality are celebrated.  In the second (virgin births story), they are troubling or even denied.  In the first, the animals can be figured as epistemic objects. Here, she proposed that the experimental site enables the discovery of an unknown animal behaviour to be articulated, via the research expertise, technical apparatus and epistemological projects around it.  In the second, it is not: the mice remain technical objects.  The materials, people and practices are arranged only for the production of trustworthy, standardized animals of known genotype.  Yet, as suggested above the differences on site that influence whether a mouse is seen as an epistemic or technical object are extremely subtle. 

Davies suggested that what is significant is the way each site is differently open to the wider circulation of laboratory animals.  The movement of animals from one system to another, from technical to experimental object, can be considered literally. She argued that there are subtle differences in the institutional arrangements that facilitate or hinder this movement.

Finally, Gail Davies proposed that there are different logics, and maybe biogeographies, of biological surplus evident in these two narratives (stories of mutant mice and virgin births). Here, she referred to Melinda Cooper who has fore grounded the role of ‘life as surplus’ in neoliberal bioeconomies.  Davies claimed that these stories of mutant mice and virgin births draw attention to an animal liveliness, which might indicate different kinds of surplus to the role demanded by either technical or epistemic objects.  There is a kind of Marxian surplus evident; the potentiality Melinda talks about.  Davies stated that we might identify this in the quick speculation about new understandings of human disease and new markets for therapeutic drugs based on the simple observation of mice found sleeping standing up.  However, she also pointed out that there is also a more Nietzschian surplus about becoming. Davies suggested that the surplus here is not necessarily ‘in excess of’ the standard, but rather ‘of a different order from’ it.  It is marked instead by the rapid turn to euthanasia. 

Gail Davies concluded her talk by stating that the work to articulate experimental objects, to make matter speak, may be equalled by the work done to keep matter silent. She argued that the two kinds of surplus are connected, but kept separate and the smooth spaces assumed by the circulation of technical objects, are folded and disturbed by the inevitable mutability of these animals. Davies claimed that even in the identification of new animal models, or productive emergence, the first sense of surplus is always haunted the second. She emphasised that to promise to provide the right genotype of mouse without fail or error, points precisely to the impossibility of securing such an outcome. Davies closed her talk by stating that all mice are always already on the move in some important bodily sense and that there is more than one kind of rogue mouse out there.

DISCUSSION

Firstly, the similarity of this approach and planting was pointed out. Davies explained how in a way it is a very old story, now inserted into industrialised environment.

Secondly, the issues of subjectivity and more general difficulties of dealing with reproduction and sexual politics were debated. Here, Gail Davies pointed out that the given approach is not without its critiques within the communities due to the reduction of the human subjectivity.

And thirdly, the problematic of biological excess was emphasised, in the context of GM food crops where the pressure is to claim standardization and predictability (creating a clash between the laboratory and the real world lab). Here, it was emphasised, that just as in the case of Davies’s talk, biological relations with local species cannot be taken into account, leading to disparities, inconsistencies and larger ethical problematic.